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LeBron Becomes Available... and the Clippers Become Invisible

The conventional wisdom this season has been that in order for the Cavs to re-sign LeBron James they needed to win a championship.  Or more accurately, that the odds of him leaving Cleveland would increase substantially if they did not win a ring.  Well, guess what?  They didn't win.

It doesn't mean that LeBron is gone - but you could hardly tell from the way everyone has reacted.  It certainly didn't help that his final game in Cleveland this year (possibly his final game as a Cavalier) was a 32 point blowout in which he was booed in the fourth quarter.  He might want to get used to that - If he signs elsewhere that's all he's going to hear on trips back to Cuyahoga County.

It's not hard to see why everyone thinks that LeBron is LeGone.  This Cavs team was built to win now - and they didn't.  If he stays in Cleveland, he's stuck with Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao (and the $30M combined they'll make next season) as his supporting cast.  The center position is currently empty, with both Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas being free agents, and both of those guys are on their last legs even if you wanted to re-sign them. In a particularly bitter twist, the Cavs don't have a single draft pick in this draft, with the first rounder going to the Wizards as part of the Jamison deal and the second rounder going to the Suns in the Shaq trade.  In other words, Shaq and Jamison were acquired to win now, they didn't, and the second half of the 'win now' equation is 'lose later.'

In fact, if LeBron does indeed leave, the Cavs could have one of the biggest backslides in league history.  After having the best record in the league in 2009-2010, how bad would they be without LeBron next season?  Only the post-Jordan Bulls come to mind as a comparable riches-to-rags story.

There are other reasons to believe that he'll be leaving Cleveland, above and beyond the immediate problem that the Cavs didn't win the title.  His every word between now and July will be parsed for hidden meaning and I think for the most part people are making mountains out of grammatical molehills (for instance referring to his time in Cleveland in the past tense makes sense, given that his time there to this point is, you know, in the past).  Having said that, one quote did catch my eye.  When he said that "me and my team have a plan" (and by 'team' he meant "Team LeBron", not the Cleveland Cavaliers), that said a lot to me.  And it didn't say "I'm staying in Ohio."

Because, let's face it, staying and playing for the hometown team would be a personal decision, not a team decision.  The reasons to stay in Cleveland all tend toward the personal - loyalty, family, that sort of thing.  Individuals care about that sort of thing.  Teams of agents and lawyers and marketers care about things like maximizing exposure, global branding opportunities and multi-media cross over appeal.  The 'team' wants him the hell out of Ohio.

If he does bolt, where will he end up?  I have no idea, but neither does anyone else.  How do I know?  The 'LeBron and Calipari to the Bulls' rumor got so much traction, so quickly, it obviously was rushing in to fill a vacuum of LeBron info.  Now, I don't pretend to understand the power of Worldwide Wes and Sonny Vaccaro, but I do know that Calipari isn't even looking for a job and has gone out of his way at this point to say that he will be coaching at Kentucky next season.  (At least Vaccaro had the Clippers high on the list of potential destinations, for what it's worth.)  How do rumors like this get started?  Again, I don't know, but if John Calipari were making $10M in the NBA next season instead of $4M in Kentucky, someone else would stand to be making a lot more money also (like for instance his agent).  But there's absolutely no reason for Calipari to get on Twitter and say he's coaching the Wildcats next season if he's not, so the red-hot rumor from this morning is done this afternoon.  (It doesn't mean that LeBron wouldn't go to Chicago without Calipari of course, but the whole idea of that rumor was Calipari and his pals Rose and LeBron together in the Windy City, so it all looks like so much wind at this point.)

Even if no one knows where he will end up, everyone seems pretty certain about where he WON'T be - in LA with the Clippers.  The Clippers don't even enter the conversation.  Chris Sheridan handicaps the four favorites (New York, Miami, Chicago and Cleveland) and even throws a darkhorse into the race in New Jersey - with nary a mention of LA.  You know it's a big sports story when they cover it on NPR, and Stefan Fatsis on "All Things Considered" today went through the same list, again omitting LA.  Of course, those who do mention the Clippers usually conclude that, despite a lot of concrete reasons that LBJ should consider the Clippers, he won't because of the most concrete reason of all - "It's the Clippers."  Solid reasoning.

Of course, "It's the Clippers" is really just code for the real reason - "It's the Donald" - and I happen to concur with that conclusion.  LeBron has a lot of options, and wherever he goes there won't be a long list of people that can adversely affect him.  Coaches can be fired, teammates can traded.  But a bad owner?  Even LeBron would have difficulty transcending that.

If we ignore that little problem just for the moment, you can certainly make a strong case for LeBron as a Clipper.  Start by asking yourself why he would leave Cleveland.  The reasons boil down to two that are head and shoulders above the rest -

  1. the size of the market (and the opportunity to be an even bigger marketing brand that goes with it) and
  2. the quality of the team.

There are other potential factors of course.  Things like weather and taxes and nightlife.  But it seems obvious that those factors are not significant as compared to the first two.

This is why omitting the Clippers from the conversation is so depressing, because based on these requirements LA is an obvious potential destination.  LA is the second biggest market in the country, and it also happens to be the location of the movie industry.  The reality is that LeBron was a plenty big marketing force in the relative backwater of Cleveland.  But if you're looking for the things that one city might be able to provide to a global icon that another city could not, movie studios would be high on the list.

As for talent, most anybody who bothers to analyze the potential destination rosters tends to agree that the Clippers are a great choice, if not the best choice.   If he joins the Knicks, he's joining a 29 win team that is losing their all star center and doesn't have a first round draft pick.  Assuming they add a second major free agent, how much better will he be then David Lee?  Maybe it will even be David Lee. In the best case scenario in New York, who's the starting point guard?  Who's playing in the backcourt at all?  After the free agent money is spent, the Knicks are still missing two starters.

If he joins the Nets, he's joining the team with the worst record in the league last year.  Are Brooke Lopez and Devin Harris nice players?  Sure.  Did I mention that the Nets had the worst record in the league last year?

Chicago has a claim to most talented suitor, but I'm not convinced LeBron would want to be there.  For one thing, if the driving force is to get to a bigger market, Chicago is certainly bigger than Cleveland, but it sure ain't New York or LA.  I'm also not convinced that he's a good fit with Derrick Rose, who has to have the ball in his hands to be effective.

Miami's pitch is predicated completely on the guys they'll sign this summer (and yes, they have a ton of cap space), so it's hard to say what they look like.  But there's a bigger problem with the Heat - Miami is already Dwyane Wade's town.  I don't care how much LeBron says he's enjoyed playing with DWade on Team USA - he's not sharing the spotlight with him.  If his ego is too big for Cleveland, then it's definitely too big to bunk with Wade's in South Beach.

On the other hand, i he were to join the Clippers, they'd immediately become the most complete starting five in the NBA (Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Chris Kaman).  There'd be no question whose team it was, Baron Davis notwithstanding.  And James and Griffin would have a chance to become the most formidable pair of athletes ever to suit up together.  On talent alone, it's a compelling argument.

The latest issue of New York magazine is more or less dedicated to pitching LeBron on the Knicks as a destination.  It's one of many shameless promotions going on, and there will doubtless be many more.  (The Heat have dedicated a new web site to Dwyane Wade; a bunch of 'famous' Clevelanders got together for a "Please Stay LeBron" tribute song, which, if I was LeBron and I watched it, would pretty much send me to the exits.  Those are the famous people in Cleveland?  Yikes.)  One of the the features in New York Magazine was a critique of all the potential destinations by Kevin Pelton.  It actually included the Clippers, and here's what he had to say about LAC:

Pros: Better returning players than any competing team, with a glaring hole at small forward.

Cons: Those players all want the ball in their hands. These are the Clippers, the city’s second fiddle. And owner Donald Sterling has a poor reputation among NBA players. (Former G.M. Elgin Baylor once claimed Sterling tried to run the team with a "southern-plantation-type structure.")

"Better returnng players than any competing team."  He said it, not me.  The cons are what they are.  I'm not sure I agree that all the other players necessarily want the ball in their hands more than most competent NBA players.  In fact, Blake Griffin is likely to be more complementary than any other first overall pick.  As for the other cons, they're all not basketball related - it's the Clippers, and it's the Donald.  Sigh.

And that's why no one is talking about LA: it's the Clippers.